Only a few years ago the numbers of chess reminiscences could be counted on one hand with Edward Lasker’s Chess Secrets I Learned from the Masters and Milan Vidmar’s Goldene Schachzeiten two of the best known. These classics from the past have found worthy companions in the recent releases Understanding Chess by William Lombardy and Profession: Chessplayer by Vladimir Tukmakov. Both Lombardy and Tukmakov’s book could stand alone as first rate game collections but what sets them apart as exceptional works are the author’s recollections of memorable players and events of the past. The present review will confine itself to an examination of Tukmakov’s book, first published in a Russian edition in 2010 and now available to an English speaking audience thanks to Russell Enterprises, Inc.
Profession: Chessplayer is two books in one. The second half of this tome features 41 games that are carefully annotated by a player who may never have become a candidate for the World Championship, but who finished second not once but three times in Soviet Championships.
Tukmakov’s becoming a Soviet Master at the age of 16 in 1962 might not seem like much by today’s standards when players become Grandmasters at an even earlier age, but at the time he was only the fourth player in the USSR to achieve this milestone. The others were Botvinnik, Bronstein and Spassky!
This early success would have seemed to predict an even greater future than Tukmakov would realize. Genna Sosonko, in his thoughtful introduction, speculates as to why his good friend did not go further. Blessed with a talent for the game, strong nerves, a hard work ethic and excellent physical condition Tukmakov would seem to have had all the necessary tools to reach the Candidates, but it was never to be. Sosonko believes the explanation may be that Tukmakov was overly critical of his play to the point where it was confidence sapping. Furthermore his friendships, love of literature and life in general may have contributed to a happy existence but not necessarily the right temperament for someone wanting to storm the highest walls in chess.
What this introspective temperament was good for is this book, a very thoughtful examination of a fifty-year career in chess that stretches from the heyday of the Soviet School of Chess to the breakup of the country in the early 1990s. Tukmakov also deals with the rise of the various republics to powerhouses in their own right, particularly his native Ukraine. Among the pieces of gold that are to be found in this book are the author’s impressions of greats like Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov. Writing about the former, Tukmakov who faced Bobby at Buenos Aires 1970, had this to say: “Not only his play, but also his behavior on the stage was unusual. He hardly ever got up from the board, which was not common at the time. Now and then he would turn away from the game, however not so much to rest or to take a look at the positions of competitors, but only to refill his glass with milk, which he consumed in large quantities.”
Tukmakov sees Karpov as a most unusual player, one who doesn’t adhere to the logical approach of Botvinnik, building up a position step by step following a strategic idea that started in the opening and triumphs in the ending. “Karpov, on the other hand, thought in chunks. There, was, of course, a general plan, but a new position with its specific features would emerge after every move and would demand a solution. Sometimes, the strongest move could be in discord with the previous plan of the game. Such contradictions would often confuse even great chessplayers. The twelfth world champion never had such doubts. He had a very unique ability of starting with a clean slate, not just a tournament or a game, but every single position. The previous ideas and variations were certainly present, but somewhere on the sidelines of this thought process and the specific features of the position after his opponent’s move were on the forefront.”
Tukmakov writes often and with a certain feeling of nostalgia, for the days of Soviet chess where the tension in internal qualification events and team tournaments was sometimes overwhelming. Imagine riding a crowded escalator where only a few people reached the top floor. That was the situation in the Soviet Union where players butted heads in a never-ending series of qualification tournaments and one ill-timed loss could result in a wait of several years for a second chance.
The author contrasts this pressure cooker atmosphere with the never ending series of events today’s professionals play in which the prize money is infinitely better but the stakes seem less serious.
Tukmakov is an insightful observer of how top-level player’s age. Writing of his own career as he approached age 40, he writes:
“In Dortmund, as well as in Leningrad and in Sochi, I played pretty well, but clearly I did not score high enough. It was something new: usually I had more points than I deserved. It seemed that I had matured as a chessplayer. My positional understanding got deeper, my opening knowledge had grown, and in general my game had become more balanced and versatile. At the same time, I had the feeling that something was important was gone for good. The mental tension that previously had never left me during the game was now replaced by a calm and sober view of the position. I was not sure if it was for better or for worse.”
Tukmakov’s portraits of lesser-known but still great players like Yakov Yukhtman aka Yankel and Lev Aronin (not to be confused with Levon Aronian) are priceless. The latter is all but forgotten today but made several plus scores in Soviet Championships - the ones that were 18 or 20 player roundrobins and lasted over a month. Tukmakov relates the story of how the 1951 event was also a zonal and Aronin, having a chance to qualify and needing only a win in the final, adjourned game where almost any move would win, blacked out. “He forced a pawn endgame that unexpectedly led to a draw. Aronin did not make the Interzonal, and had a nervous breakdown from which he never fully recovered…” Aronin never had the opportunities to play in the West that might have come his way had he played in the Stockholm-Saltsjobaden Interzonal where the five Soviet entries took the top five places. He never was awarded the Grandmaster title he clearly deserved.
Here is the ending that decided one man’s fate.
Lev Aronin – Vassily Smyslov, Moscow 1951
1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bg5 h6 6.Be3 c6 7.Qd2 b5 8.Bd3 Ng4 9.Bf4 e5 10.dxe5 dxe5 11.Bg3 h5 12.Bh4 f6 13.h3 Bh6 14.Qe2 b4 15.Na4 g5 16.Bg3 h4 17.Bh2 Nxh2 18.Nxh2 Nd7 19.Bc4 Bf8 20.Ng4 Nb6 21.Rd1 Qe7 22.Bb3 Rb8 23.0–0 Nxa4 24.Bxa4 Rb6 25.Qc4 Qe6 26.Qd3 Qe7 27.Qd5 Be6 28.Qd3 Bg7 29.Bb3 0–0 30.Ne3 Bxb3 31.Qxb3+ Qf7 32.Nf5 Qxb3 33.axb3 Rf7 34.Rd8+ Kh7 35.Ra1 Bf8 36.Ra8 Rbb7 37.Rd1 Rbc7 38.Rdd8 Bg7 39.Kf1 Rfd7 40.Rxd7 Rxd7 41.Rc8 Kg6 42.Rg8
42.Rxc6 was of course any easy win.
43.Rc8 was still winning.
43...Rxg7 44.Nxg7 Kxg7 45.g4 hxg3 46.fxg3 g4 47.h4 c5 48.Ke2 Kh7 49.Kd3 Kh6 50.c3
As 50.Kc4?? fails to 50…f5.
50...a5 51.cxb4 axb4, ½–½.
Profession: Chessplayer is an outstanding work that belongs in every chessplayer’s library. That said this author would be remiss if he did not mention there is one way this book could have clearly been improved. The days of the past in which books published in the Soviet Union were printed on cheap paper, and the photos unimaginably bad, are long gone. Still it was a bit of a surprise to this reviewer to discover that the Russian language version of this book has better photographs than the English one. The photos in the latter have not reproduced well, in part because in many cases they have been reduced to the size of postage stamps.
This is really a shame as many of the pictures that Tukmakov selected have considerable historic value and all indications are they could have shined if given the opportunity. One need only look at William Lombardy’s Understanding Chess to realize how an inlay of photographs on good paper adds to the value of the book, though here as well they suffer from being too small.
This reviewer does not mean to pick on the publisher, Russell Enterprises, Inc. (which also produced Lombardy’s book) is not alone in suffering this fault – New in Chess often has problems with their photographs as well.
It’s likely not a coincidence. Both publishers are tackling a subject that does not have the strongest commercial cache and deserve praise for doing so. The sad reality is most chessplayers want titles that promise to improve their rating, preferably as quickly as possible.
The economics of publishing are that few games collections make the best seller list and adding an insert of photos on good quality paper adds to a book’s cost. Still, it can be done. Look at the beautiful color photographs in My One Hundred Best Games of Chess by Alexey Dreev published by Chess Stars or the tournament book San Luis 2005 by Quality Chess. Even if a publisher can’t afford to adopt this approach a compromise can be struck in using fewer photographs but reproducing them more clearly.
This one caveat aside, which in no way reflects on the author, I give this book my strongest recommendation.